Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for virtual Undset-themed drinks on Friday, June 4, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, visit our events page, or scroll down to the bottom of the article.
The most common food in the medieval historical romance Kristin Lavransdatter, written by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), is oatmeal porridge, a dish I made elaborate perfection of during my children’s early years. The porridges in Undset’s book are good and nourishing but plain (though in one scene, a young Kristin eats hers with “thick cream” off her father’s spoon). Mine, on the other hand, were ridiculous. I blitzed half the oats in the baby-food blender before cooking. I tried different combinations of milk and water. I made fruit puree swirls. I had a two-year-old daughter, an infant son, and an office job, to which I fled every day in great relief to get a moment to myself and then struggled not to leak breast milk on my work clothes. My husband was unhelpful with the children. Childless people found my travails boring and embarrassing. I’d never thought being a woman mattered much, but suddenly it seemed to. I was miserable, and perfecting the oatmeal made me feel better.
Kristin Lavransdatter, which unfolds over the course of three volumes—The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross—is a woman’s story. It’s also a gripping read and an impressive feat of historical re-creation, which helped Undset win the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The epic’s structural and textual allusions are so numerous that, as the professor Sherrill Harbison dryly remarks in her introduction to The Cross, they “show no signs of being exhausted by scholars.” (She also—correctly, I feel—thinks the book is overlooked.) When writing Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset drew from sagas, ballads, Scandinavian oral tradition, and medieval texts of all types, notably the allegory Le roman de la rose, to tell the tale of a woman in the early fourteenth century, a time when society was changing for women, who takes her newish right to consent to her own marriage a step further and demands her own choice of husband. Not accidentally, Undset was writing in the 1920s, another time of rapid social change.
The story follows Kristin, daughter of Lavrans, from childhood to death. Lavrans is a salt-of-the-earth Norwegian, “a strong and courageous man, but a peaceful soul, honest and calm, humble in conduct but courtly in bearing, a remarkably capable farmer and a great hunter.” As the treasured offspring of this strong and good man, Kristin is herself strong and good, and destined to carry on her family’s legacy of virtue. But in the book’s first section, Lavrans takes her up to the mountain pastures with a handful of children and servants to see to some land-management tasks. The group eats lunch outdoors amid the dazzling mountain views—“soft bread and thin lefse, butter and cheese, pork and wind-dried reindeer meat, lard, boiled beef brisket, two large kegs of German ale, and a small jug of mead.” Lavrans gives Kristin “all the ale she could drink, along with frequent sips of mead” and says: “God’s gifts will do you good, not harm, all you who are still growing. The ale will give you sweet red blood and make you sleep well.” The whole party falls asleep in the midday sunshine. Kristin, unaccustomed to drinking, wakes up with a headache and a dry mouth and accidentally wanders off down the wooded slope, where she is first captivated by her reflection in a stream and then sees an apparition, a woman with “a pale face,” “flowing, flaxen hair,” and “full breasts,” which are “covered with brooches and gleaming necklaces.” Kristin flees in terror, but the damage has been done.
The woman is an elf maiden. In Norwegian folklore, Harbison writes, the elf maiden represents “abduction and erotic abandon; her mischief is to lure young girls into the mountain for orgies with the mountain king.” Later, it will be Kristin’s fate to defy the counsel of her wise and good father, the values of her community, and the expectations of her religion, and reject an eminently appropriate betrothed, Simon Darre, for a different man, Erlend Nikulausson, with whom she falls in wild, besotted, sexual love. The reflection in the water is a reference to the myth of Narcissus, an inspiration for Le roman de la rose, which is about a dreamer who falls in love with a beautiful rose at the bottom of a pool but is eventually persuaded to make the more “responsible” choice: to marry a woman and reproduce. Throughout the entirety of Kristin Lavransdatter, the title character struggles with her decision to choose Erlend, herself, and her passion over her community’s values—which are also, with anguish, her own values. The motifs of Narcissus, the elf maiden, and the mountain king continue to appear.
Familiarity with the source material invaluably deepens one’s appreciation of the book’s themes, making Harbison’s introduction to The Cross required reading. She explains that even the idea of romantic love the way Kristin experiences it was relatively new in the fourteenth century. Romantic, or courtly, love was “invented by poets in France in the twelfth century” and represented an advance in the status of women, because suddenly they were deemed worthy of inspiring heights of passion. (Prior to this, sex with women was considered a troublesome and low occupation that kept men from their real work.) Courtly love, though, wasn’t quite the same as how we view romance today—it claimed the highest status for doomed, forbidden, secret passions, usually between people who were married, but not to each other. The beautiful, unattainable rose at the bottom of the pool in Le roman de la rose is evocative of this kind of love. In an echo of its symbolism, Kristin and Erlend’s first outing together is in a rose garden.
Le roman de la rose, however, is a bifurcated text. The first part, extolling the values of courtly love, was written by one author; the second, a palinode in which that form of love is rejected, was written by a different author forty-five years later. In the intervening time, Harbison explains, Christian tradition had caught up to the newfound concepts of romance and erotic love and tried to tame their antisocial tendencies by suggesting that such feelings had their proper place—between married men and women, for the ultimate goal of procreation. Erotic abandon became merely an inferior echo of divine love.
Undset’s genius, to my mind, was first in what Harbison calls her “brutal realism.” Kristin is pregnant even before her wedding, and then nearly continually for the duration of The Wife, eventually bearing seven sons. Childbirth, nursing, and the mind- and body-destroying state of near-constant pregnancy are realistically portrayed. Undset is realistic about human nature as well: the lives depicted in Kristin Lavransdatter are recognizable to us even today despite the book’s convincingly medieval setting. Isn’t it still true that forbidden passion is the most electrifying? Could the first writers about romance have been more right than we are now? And isn’t it also true that marriage and wild, erotic love are not states that easily coexist, and that the former is a harnessing of the latter in the service of property, social stability, and procreation, just as the medieval church encouraged? Kristin and Erlend’s relationship, founded on erotic love, never goes quite right after their marriage. The elf maiden and Narcissus motifs appear again in the third volume when Erlend tries to convince Kristin to abandon their (nearly grown) children and live on a mountain farm with him, clearly demonstrating a conflict between family life and sexuality.
Undset was an outlier in her times, with views that would be even less popular today. Kristin’s struggle is not for sexual freedom, or for the ability to assert her selfhood or rights in the feminist sense, but for virtue and God. What’s interesting to me is that this does not mean condemning sexuality but instead fully engaging with its harsh and exhilarating demands. Kristin’s passion for Erlend is one of her life’s animating forces. It is not wrong; it participates in the divine. But it hurts other people and causes scandals, troubles, complications, and hardships that are indelible on Kristin’s conscience. It also, in a way, both enriches and hurts her, with all those babies.
Undset became a Catholic shortly after Kristin Lavransdatter was published, another choice that made her unpopular with her literary peers. But she called herself a “pagan Catholic” and rejected the puritanical antisex form of Catholicism, which she thought was especially prevalent in America. The church, as Undset writes it, helps Kristin navigate the painful contradictions between her competing values.
In my own form of conflicting values, I have never really accustomed myself to the loss of self inflicted by motherhood—it’s worth it, but it’s hard, always. Nor have I ever found the combination of sexuality and committed relationships to be easy. Undset’s vision is consoling in its suggestion that such struggle with our embodied fates is not a failure but a form of success. “However impatient, stubborn, and rebellious Kristin has been,” Harbison writes, on her deathbed “she suddenly understands that full engagement in her earthly marriage has indelibly marked her as God’s own.” (I’d take “marriage” in this case to mean the wider sense of whatever we choose to commit ourselves to, another person or not.) Embodiment can take all forms these days. Reproduction—or the decision not to reproduce—can happen in any combination of people, single or attached, in any gender, but we all have our own forms of embodied struggle, and they rarely correspond with what they’re “supposed” to be. Undset’s brutal realism was to admit it, and then to offer a church that admitted it, too, and helped. I’m not sure that church ever existed—being narrowly proscriptive of sexuality and condemning in a variety of ways is more what we’ve come to expect—but I wish it did. It would have been a miracle to me, in the perfect-oatmeal years, to feel less alone.
I did not make that oatmeal for my Undset-inspired feast (and I hope none of you ever do either—the blender step is really unnecessary). Instead, I turned to the other foods available in Kristin Lavransdatter, simple dishes like the “boiled beef brisket” mentioned above and “soft barley bread.” The only dessert mentioned is “gingerbread from Oslo,” and it appears twice, so I made that, too, shaped with a fancy rolling pin whose effect looks Scandinavian to me. The food descriptions are light on seasoning and details (possibly because there wasn’t much seasoning in fourteenth-century Norway), but I learned many interesting things about dining traditions. In one long passage, Kristin explains an old style of table that could be easily folded and removed so that the extended household could sleep on the floor of the hall. In another, Erlend instructs her to scatter “juniper and flowers” on the floor, place “the best cushions on the benches,” and cover the table with a linen cloth. When styling my food, I spread dried grasses and flowers on the table to evoke this spirit. I also cheated and added the garden and orchard ingredients mentioned in the rose-garden scene—one of the book’s loveliest—to my beef brisket: dill and celery, onions and cherries.
Everywhere there was food in medieval Norway, there was drink, and often many kinds on the same table—wines and meads, ales strong and weak. The ensuing drunkenness is another aspect of the books’ harsh realism and another example of the dual nature of God’s gifts. My spirits consultant, Hank Zona, found me not just meads but a mead trend, which serendipitously reflects both Kristin Lavransdatter’s pagan Catholic spirituality and some of our more modern struggles to live virtuously and situate ourselves in our wider human community. First, I spoke to a home mead maker named Eileen Coles, whom I met through the Norwegian immigrant community in Brooklyn. Coles brews mead as a sacred beverage in the Heathen tradition. (Heathen is a designation for the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Northern European religion.) Coles noted that mead is found worldwide, “wherever one would find beehives, in places as far-flung as India, Ethiopia, and China,” but that it and beer are more prevalent in Northern Europe because of the climate. Since grapes don’t grow well in the cold, “people made do with what was available—grains, herbs, and honey.”
For those of us who can’t make our mead at home, Zona suggests two commercial mead makers: Melovino (a name that contains the Latin words for “honey” and “wine”) in Vauxhall, New Jersey, and Enlightenment Wines, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Sergio Moutela, the owner of Melovino, started out as a home brewer; he became interested in mead because it was something of a crossover from his Portuguese immigrant family’s home winemaking tradition. From Melovino, Zona and I chose two bottles: Au Contraire, a purist sip of “just vinified honey and no flavorings,” Zona says; and Once Bitten Twice Dry, a mead-cider co-ferment made from local apples. Our meads from Enlightenment are the St. Crimson—a “dry black mead” made from local black currants and honey, spontaneously fermented in oak barrels for more than a year—and Nought, a dry mead from raw wildflower honey, also spontaneously fermented (which means using the natural organisms present in the honey to start the fermentation process). Enlightenment mead maker Raphael Lyon also emphasized that while it’s accurate to connect mead to a Northern European tradition, that’s not the whole story: the beverage is an ancient and global tradition. His method, which uses only local ingredients he finds in New York State, connects him to that wider community. “When you look at mead making, everybody does it differently wherever they are,” he said, “but you also do it in the same way, which is that people are using what grows locally.”
The black currant mead in particular suited my beef stew. In order to determine this, my photographer and I liberally tasted all four, discovering for ourselves that mead’s high alcohol content and the additional sugar from the honey make it, as Coles said, “a sippin’ beverage.” We got drunk. Unlike Kristin, we did not fall asleep afterward on a mountainside or wake up to be lured away by elf maidens—unless, in the greater sense, that comes with embodiment and has already happened to us all.
Medieval Barley Bread
Adapted from Medieval-Recipes.com.
4 tsp yeast
1/3 cup brown ale
12 oz bread flour
12 oz barley flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 tsp honey
Preheat the oven to 450.
Combine the yeast, ale, warm water, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer, and let sit for five minutes, until the yeast is bubbly. If the mixture doesn’t puff up, the yeast is dead, and you’ll need to start again with different yeast.
While the yeast is proofing, mix together the bread flour, barley flour, and salt in a large bowl. Once the yeast has become bubbly, add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, and mix with the dough attachment. If it’s not coming together, add more warm water a little bit at a time until you have a coherent dough.
Grease a large bowl with some neutral oil. Place the dough inside, cover, and set aside in a warm place to rise until it doubles in volume (check after half an hour). Once the dough has risen, punch it down, shape it, and put it in the cooking vessel to rise again. (A three-and-a-half-quart Dutch oven or nine-by-four-inch loaf pan would work.)
Once the dough has risen, place in the preheated oven, and bake for forty-five minutes to an hour, until the top is golden and the bottom makes a hollow sound when you knock on it.
Serve with butter.
Beef Stew with Dill and Cherries
a pound of beef brisket, cut into three-quarter-inch chunks
salt (to taste)
pepper (to taste)
2 tbs flour
1 tbs butter
2 tbs neutral-tasting oil
a small onion, chopped
a rib of celery, chopped
1 1/2 cups stock or water
1/4 cup black currant mead (optional)
1/8 tsp celery seeds
1/3 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup dill, minced
Liberally salt and pepper the brisket. Place the chunks of meat into a gallon freezer bag, add flour, and shake until the meat is evenly coated.
Put a three-and-a-half-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and add the butter and oil. When the butter has melted and the foam has subsided, add about half the brisket, spaced well apart so the meat will brown instead of steam. Fry until the meat is well browned on all sides. Remove the first batch of meat, and brown the second batch. Remove and reserve.
Take the pan off the heat so it cools down a bit, and turn the heat down to low. After a few minutes, return the pan to the heat, add the onions and celery, and cook until the vegetables are wilted.
Return the meat to the pan, along with the stock, celery seeds, and black currant mead (if you’re using it). Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook, covered, for an hour. Remove the lid, and cook for forty-five minutes more, until the brisket is tender. Add the cherries in the last five minutes of cooking time and the dill at the very end. Taste for seasoning.
Gingerbread from Oslo
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
3/4 tsp salt
a stick of butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and salt in a large bowl, and set aside. Beat butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Mix in egg and molasses. Add flour mixture, mixing on low until just combined. Divide dough in half, and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until medium-firm, about an hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough until it’s a quarter of an inch thick. I rolled mine a second time with a special rolling pin to make a pattern, but you could also use cutters to make shapes of your choice. Spread two inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, and refrigerate again, about fifteen minutes. Bake cookies until crisp but not dark, about twelve to fourteen minutes. Let cool on wire racks.
Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday, June 4, at 6 P.M. for virtual Undset-themed drinks on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. We will discuss food and drink in Undset’s work. Special guest Raphael Lyon from Enlightenment Wines will join us.
The meads seen in the story are Au Contraire and Once Bitten Twice Dry, from Melovino, and St. Crimson and Nought, from Enlightenment Wines. Most can be ordered through the mead makers’ websites. If you don’t have a mead on hand, bring wine or ale—or all three, the way they did in Kristin Lavransdattar. Anyone who would like more specific advice on choosing a beverage for the tasting can email us ([email protected]).
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.